Wolves v Espanyol
Thursday 20 February, 20:00
Live on BT Sport
Wolves are in it to win it
There’s been something incredibly refreshing about Wolves’ attitude to the Europa League from the start of this season. Even in the opening qualifying rounds, manager Nuno Espirito Santo was selecting strong sides, and that set the tone for what’s been an impressive campaign so far. There’s been no whinging about the Thursday-Sunday grind, and Wolves have gone about their business like the big club they are striving to become.
After a shaky start to the group phase (they lost at home to Braga) Wolves won four of the remaining five group matches, scoring 11 goals in the process. Including qualifiers, strikers Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota have scored 15 goals between them, and at the other end Wolves kept three clean sheets in six group games.
Wolves’ attitude to the competition has been reflected by their fans, and Molineux has become something of a fortress. Wolves have won five of their six home matches, a vast improvement compared to their recent Premier League form on home soil, which has seen them win just one of their last five.
Jimenez is back from suspension, and is expected to spearhead the attack. Portuguese duo Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho should run the midfield, while their compatriot Ruben Vinagre is the only absentee through injury.
Espanyol aiming to rebuild their season
It’s been a strange season for Espanyol, who have caught the eye in Europe, but have had a disastrous domestic campaign.
Coach Rubi defected to Real Betis, having taken Espanyol into Europe last season. His replacement, David Gallego, was promoted from within. However, he lasted until early October before he was dismissed. Replacement Pablo Machin, who had excelled with Girona but failed with Sevilla, was in charge for just 15 games before his dismissal.
Former Spain and Barcelona defender Abelardo is now in charge, and he has a few new players to work with. Striker Raul de Tomas has impressed since coming in from Benfica (he has scored in his last four appearances), centre-back Leandro Cabrera was prised away from Getafe, and midfielder Adrian Embarba came in from Rayo Vallecano.
The problem Abelardo has is that he needs to balance this competition against the pressing needs of a relegation battle. His side is bottom of La Liga, although they are only two points from safety after a run of only one defeat in six matches.
De Tomas is struggling with injury, and it remains to be seen whether he will start. Didac Vila is back from suspension.
Wolves to take first-leg advantage
Despite Espanyol’s improvement, it remains to be seen how strong a line-up they’ll select here. Wolves have produced some of their best performances at home in this competition, and although Espanyol have done well on the road in the UEL, this test represents a big step up in quality. The Spanish side have lost five of their last seven away games in La Liga, and I think Wolves will have too much pace and technical quality for them to deal with.
I’ll back Wolves -1.0 on the Asian Handicap here at [1.95].
Espanyol to grab an away goal?
Espanyol have been scoring freely on the road in this competition. They have scored at least twice in all but one of their away matches in the UEL, they scored twice at the weekend in a 2-2 draw at Sevilla, and overall they have scored in seven of their last ten away matches.
If you think Espanyol will grab a goal, back Both Teams To Score at [1.99].